Burning the Ashes: Civil War, Poverty and the Revictimization of the Poor

Myanmar is a tragedy. Already one of the poorest countries in the world and often ranked as the poorest country in Asia, the civil war that began after the February 1, 2021, coup has only worsened living conditions in Burmese villages. Villages are being arbitrarily burned or commandeered by the Junta’s forces. The currency has devalued. Military checkpoints impede travel and strike fear in the hearts of anyone who leaves their home. Market access for small-hold farmers has decreased. Extrajudicial killings continue. COVID rages. And many INGOs have closed their doors because western (Caucasian) management teams had to flee the country.

Every week I get asked some permutation of this question, “Can community development work even be done in circumstances like that?” The answer is yes and no. No, conventional forms of development work (led by expats from Europe or North America) cannot continue amidst a civil war. But, yes, Shanta’s model of community development, led exclusively by local people, can and is continuing under the direst circumstances. When local people lead and do the work, the projects are not dependent on expats who may or may not stay in the country if a natural or man-made disaster occurs. Moreover, in our model, the expertise is given to local people who better understand the development context AND who have more at stake if the work pauses or stops.

The civil war in Myanmar only confirms the need to shift toward a community-led development model. Further, the economic impacts of civil war should dictate that the development community make that switch sooner, not later. A study by Harvard’s Center for International Development only confirmed what we already know to be true—civil war increases and intensifies extreme poverty. (Measuring the Economic Impact of Civil War – HCID Working Paper No. 51 June 2000; Copyright 2000 Kosuke Imai and Jeremy Weinstein and the President and Fellows of Harvard College). Like burning the ashes, civil war revictimizes people who have already been abused, neglected, and/or marginalized by making their lives more dangerous and precarious.

If you want to bring hope and assistance to the people of Myanmar, join us in our work among rural villagers living there. Because our model empowers local people, the work is continuing even in the midst of a civil war. We partner with villages for six years and equip them to design and build their own path our of poverty. We train local people to solve local problems. Will you join us?